Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, wrote to Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced in April, expressing his concerns about possible improprieties in the distribution of relief in Puerto Rico.
“Unfortunately,” Chairman Grassley wrote, “there have been recent troubling revelations regarding instability of leadership in Puerto Rico’s health system, as well as a clear lack of accountability regarding government procurement and contracting. These revelations are the latest in a steady stream of evidence demonstrating similar faults in the government of Puerto Rico’s rebuilding efforts following the largest municipal debt default in U.S. history and a string of devastating natural disasters. It appears that procurement and contracting in Puerto Rico often passes through a filter of political connections before resources intended for the people of Puerto Rico actually reach them and achieve the intended use, depriving the people of Puerto Rico the primacy that they deserve.”
Grassley went on to reference stockpiles of donated supplies found in warehouses and “a recent wave of resignations of key health officials.” He also listed examples of questionable procurement processes in which political supporters may have been favored in awarding contracts.
“The federal responses to Puerto Rico’s recent series of natural disasters and to the ongoing public health emergency are intended to help the people of Puerto Rico,” Grassley wrote. “It is disappointing to learn of continued allegations of irregularities in the provision of emergency relief to the people of Puerto Rico by the government of Puerto Rico.”
The letter concluded with a list of 13 questions requesting details on the various examples of irregular actions mentioned in the letter.
Read the letter to Puerto Rico Governor Vazquez.
The governor’s response
Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced responded promptly with a letter acknowledging receipt of Grassley’s letter. The letter began with expressions of concern for the people Puerto Rico, and of gratitude for the federal assistance Puerto Rico has received.
“However,” the letter continued, “we must also acknowledge that a fundamental limitation for Puerto Rico as it seeks to address its multiple overlapping crises (economic, fiscal, demographic, political exigencies as well as natural disasters and pandemics) is that its territorial status allows for structural inequalities between Puerto Rico and the states.”
The governor reminded Grassley that Puerto Rico, as a territory, can legally be treated unequally as compared with the states, mentioning Medicaid, Medicare, nutritional assistance, Child Tax Credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit as examples.
“These inequitable policies lead to an overall quality of life in Puerto Rico that is below the standard in the states in multiple respects,” she wrote. “This disparate quality of life is the primary reason for Puerto Rico’s ongoing population loss, which is detrimental to Puerto Rico’s tax base, labor force, consumer demand, debt repayment capacity, and overall prospects for economic growth.”
Having established these basic points, the letter went on to state that Grassley’s letter had been “unfortunate” and inaccurate.
“First, in the face of the unprecedented global crisis brought on by COVID-19, this administration has been laser focused on preserving the health and safety of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico and assuring that we respond to this unparalleled challenge swiftly and effectively,” Vazquez wrote. She went on to list the actions her government took in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and dismissed Grassley’s primary claims as “patently false.”
Referencing her efforts to increase transparency and diminish corruption, Vázquez said, “In fact, after reviewing the Government’s recovery operations in February 2020, Coast Guard Admiral Peter J. Brown—the Trump administration’s liaison to the Government for natural disaster recovery efforts—reported that Puerto Rico’s ‘reputation seems to lag the reality’ because the Government has implemented ‘very strong internal control mechanisms to counter any attempts at corruption or diversion of funds.’ Admiral Brown further indicated that, after reporting his findings to President Trump, he hopes the administration will be convinced that federal money is being spent wisely in Puerto Rico and that the federal and Puerto Rico government establish a new atmosphere of cooperation and trust.”
Answering the questions
The letter went on to discuss the specific examples mentioned in Grassley’s questions. Reiterating the propriety and transparency of her government, Vázquez pointed out that various States and the federal government have also been accused of impropriety in procurement, particularly in crisis situations. “I fully concur that any impropriety in connection with the procurement of government contracts cannot be tolerated and we have implemented a process to investigate and eliminate any wrongdoing in government procurements. However,” Vazquez wrote, “making allegations of malfeasance based on speculation and without factual basis is unfair to any administration and suggests ulterior motives”
The suggestion of ulterior motives showed more than once Vázquez’s letter, along with her insistence that the allegations made in Grassley’s letter were unwarranted. “My administration stands ready to continue productive engagement with the federal government and the Oversight Board to address our collective challenges posed by COVID-19,” she wrote. “However, this administration will not stay silent, and will respond, in the face of false allegations that the Government has not acted in good faith or in a transparent manner.”
The letter concluded, “Finally, I thank you for this opportunity which has served to underscore the unquestionable resilience of our U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico, who despite the many recent challenges and the long-standing unequal treatment as a territory, have consistently payed the ultimate price in defense of our nation’s freedom.”
Vázquez included documents supporting her answers.
Read the letter to Senator Charles E. Grassley.